VESS – Visual evaluation of soil

Back in 2007, soil scientist Bruce Ball and his collaborators published a research paper on VESS – Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure [1] – and released a two page summary of the methods for anyone to use, free of any charge. The two-pager was printed on the back and front of quality paper, which was then laminated to form a durable sheet that could be taken out to the field as a guide and reference to quickly estimate soil health.

Recently, the Living Field editor was working with people creating an exhibition on regenerative farming to be held later in 2024 at a museum in the Tay Catchment. Questions around good and bad soils came up – was it possible to tell the difference between them without laboratory analysis, and were photographic guides available to illustrate soil quality for visitors to the exhibition?

VESS came to mind, since, as is evident from the reproduction below, it depicts soils of different quality. And Bruce was the obvious person to contact for guidance and photographs.

Plate 1. The two-page VESS guide to soil structure [1].

VESS is an example of scientific research condensing a great deal of technical information into an easy-to-use practical guide. Intended users were agronomists and farmers, and indeed anyone who wanted to learn a bit more about agricultural or garden soil.

Here are two contrasting images of the same medium-textured soil. One under woodland (left) has very good soil structure with many roots. The other under cereal cropping nearby (right) contains compacted clods below a fairly good structured surface layer. The VESS guide indicates for each soil the likely degree of pore space through which roots could penetrate the medium to extract nutrients and water.

Plate 2. Two soils ready for Visual Evaluation, left from a woodland, right from a cereal field.

Since its initial publication, VESS has travelled to other parts of the world, including the Amazon Basin [2]. It is being adapted and trialled for new soils and regions, contributing to our understanding of global soil health.

New Book : Healing soil

Continuing his aim to bring the world of soils to non-scientists, Bruce has recently (2022) published a book titled Healing Soil – How soil health will save the planet and us [3]. The author writes:

“This book is a journey that explores the importance of our soil to our world and humanity and the connection that can be found between soil and both of these. Each of the three parts of the book contains a series of short illustrated items spotlighting a key way that soil contributes to the health of ourselves, our society and our planet. The items are illustrated either by artworks that I have created or by photographs to show the interplay between the fate of the soil and the fate of our world – from all of humanity down to the way we live our individual lives.”

Below are two examples of Bruce’s illustrations in the book.

Soil greening power. Acrylic on board. The seed in the centre produces its seedling by the greening power of soil fertility thrusting from below.

References | links

[1] Ball BC, Batey T, Munkholm LJ (2007) Field assessment of soil structural quality – a development of the Peerlkamp test. Soil Use and Management 23, 329-337.

[2] Rachel M.L. Guimarães, Afrânio F. Neves Junior, Wellington G. Silva, Craig D. Rogers, Bruce C. Ball, Célia R. Montes, Bruno F.F. Pereira. (2017) The merits of the Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure method (VESS) for assessing soil physical quality in the remote, undeveloped regions of the Amazon basin. Soil and Tillage Research 173, 75-82,

[3] Ball BC (2022) Healing soil – how soil health will save the planet and us. Published by Bruce Ball, Roslin, Midlothian, UK and distributed by Kindle Direct Publishing Services, Amazon, Seattle, Washington, USA. Ed: search ‘author’ and ‘title’ to find web sites for online purchase.

A World of Soil for Healing People and Planet Earth. Mixed media on paper. In the same way that soil encircles the World, when humans nurture soil-like properties they can work in unity to sustain life on Earth.


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Ed: many thanks to Bruce for sharing his knowledge of soils. His book [3] contains many striking illustrations that link this thin, life-sustaining layer to the future of all people.

Dust bowl ballads

“On the 14th day of April / Of 1935, there struck / The worst of dust storms / That ever filled the sky. “

Reports suggesting the infamous 1930s north american dust bowl could happen again have been circulating in recent years (links below).  Recent analysis suggests that it could be worse this time due to higher temperatures! … on which more to follow.

The singer Woody Guthrie had first hand experience of the dust and its destruction of the means to produce food and earn a living.

Science argued then that the dust bowl was of man’s own making. True to form, the record label Folkways did not shy away from the environmental and political.

Dust bowl ballads by Woody Guthrie

lf_noim_dbb_cvr_750Woody Guthrie wrote a set of songs   on life in the US dust bowl. His performances  were published by Folkways Records as a vinyl long-playing record (LP).

The record cover (right, scanned from editor’s own copy) is a photograph of a group of three people, a man and two children, walking past a shack and posts that are being buried in dust. Not credited on the LP, but by Arthur Rothstein, taken 1936, it is one of many images commissioned to record the story of the dust bowl.

Guthrie and Folkways included a paper insert of comments by the performer, the words of the songs, some further images and an extract from a book The Story of Plants by John Asch published in 1948.

Woody Guthrie’s notes were dated ‘later days of May, 1950’.  He writes: “I just beat my way from NYC to L.A. and then back home again to Coney Island.”

“I rolled a ways with experts of every kind. I stood a while, I rode a while, I talked a mite with young and old weather birds, about too much or not enough water, too much wind or not enough wind, too much mud or not enough mud, too much work or not enough work, too much money or not enough money, too much of everything and not enough of nothing. ”

“I heard folks talk and cry about the dust storms all out across our 16 middlewest states. I saw that lost gone look on their faces when they told me the government didn’t follow the plan of FDR and so our land is still a dustbowl hit by dust-storms and the duststorms are getting higher  and wilder and meaner, and the hearts of the people are sickly worried.

“No job, low pay, high prices, higher taxes, bum houses, slummy houses. Great diseases are running and great sores are spreading down across our map and the duststorms and the cyclone and the dirty winds and the twisters ride high and wide, low across our whole land. Government experts tell me these dusters will get a lot worse.”

“The old dustbowl is still there, and that high dirt-wind is still there. the government didn’t fix that and the Congress couldn’t put a stop to it. Nobody tried very hard.”

[FDR is Franklin D Roosevelt who not long into his presidency initiated a plan for rehabilitation of the dust bowl lands.]

Notes on soil erosion by John Asch

The insert had this extract on soil erosion from a book The Story of Plants by John  Asch published 1948.lf_noim_dbb_schtx_750

Sources, references, links

lf_noim_dbb_nsrt_500Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie was originally published by Folkways Records, Album No FH5212, 1964. Reissued as a CD and download, and available from Smithsonian Folkways

John Asch. 1948. The story of plants. Illustrated by Tabea Hofmann. Publisher: Putnam’s Sons, 407 pages or thereabouts.

Images reproduced here are scanned directly from an LP bought and owned by GS.

“My good gal sings the dust pneumonee blues / my good gal sings the dust pneumonee blues / she loves me cos she’s got the dust pneumonee too.” 


Nature Conservancy (US based) article When the dust settled with images and slideshow of the dustbowl, opening with some of Woody Guthrie’s best lines.

The Dust Bowl – a film by Ken Burns: highly informative  web site – perhaps begin with  Photo gallery and Legacy.

Steinbeck J. 1939. The grapes of wrath. (A novel about a family’s experiences and losses in the dust bowl.

Bennett HH, Chapline WR. 1928. Soil erosion a national menace. Circular No. 33, United States Department of Agriculture.  [A technical article warning on erosion in the USA before the main dust bowl years. Available online as a downloadable pdf: search ‘Bennett’ + ‘soil erosion’ + ‘1928’]

Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Creation of the  Soil Erosion Service at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Examples of recent reports of a new dust bowl Are we headed for another dust bowl?

National Geographic: Parched: a new dust bowl forms in the heartland

Yale Climate Connections: Avoiding a second dust bowl across the UK.